The Cat in the Hat comes back

7th November 1997 at 00:00
THE CAT IN THE HAT. By Dr Seuss. 40th-anniversary edition. Pounds 12.99.

THE CAT IN THE HAT. tHE CAT IN THE HAT COMES BACK. DR SEUSS'S ABC. FOX IN SOCKS. GREEN EGGS AND HAM. ONE FISH TWO FISH RED FISH BLUE FISH. Classic Collection paperbacks. Pounds 4.99 each.

DR SEUSS'S ABC. THE FOOT BOOK: DR SEUSS'S WACKY BOOK OF OPPOSITES. THERE'S A WOCKET IN MY POCKET!: DR SEUSS'S BOOK OF RIDICULOUS RHYMES. MR BROWN CAN MOO! CAN YOU? DR SEUSS'S BOOK OF WONDERFUL NOISES. Bright and Early Board Books Pounds 4.50 each. All published by Collins.

Dr Seuss's books deserve to sit alongside the giants of children's literature in Britain, argues Ted Dewan

Happy birthday, Cat in the Hat. I can't believe you're already 40. I've known you for most of your life, since we met in the library in 1964. You were the star of the short shelves and the great reliever of boredom.

The Cat's father is Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, whose other creations include the Who-hearing Horton, the environmentally active Lorax, Sam-I-Am, and the Grinch. Seuss was poet laureate for American kids of my generation.

That a unique and idiosyncratic artist and writer like Seuss could have become mainstream in down-to-earth 1950s America of all places is nothing short of astonishing. Dr Seuss became as much a part of childhood as the Beatles were part of my baby-sitters' teen life. Seuss books were among the few that kids would really want for Christmas. Seuss is quoted in everything from presidential speeches to the lyrics of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Collins is now relaunching some of the Seuss classics in quality paperbacks and mini board books. Having been disappointed with previous cheapskate, shrunken, hard-cover editions of Seuss, with crummy see-through paper, I was pleased with the improved quality of these new paperbacks. The collection includes One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Fox in Socks, and perhaps Seuss's most famous book, Green Eggs and Ham. Even better are the mini board books: There's a Wocket in My Pocket!, The Foot Book and Dr Seuss's ABC.

But best of all is the full-size reissue of The Cat in the Hat in its original glory. This particular edition is worthy of the renewed attention of librarians, teachers and collectors. I hope there are more titles in the pipeline.

If you are unfamiliar with The Cat in the Hat and Dr Seuss, I implore you to get to know his timeless work. It's not clear why his books haven't been fully exploited as curricular materials in Britain. It may be due in part to Seuss's tongue-tying text. The sheer effort of juggling his more complicated rhymes can be a challenge for youngsters who are just getting to grips with language. Some of his texts are the linguistic equivalents of 100 sit-ups first thing in the morning. Just the same, one would have thought Seuss was a natural successor to the likes of Edward Lear.

But Seuss's texts are much deeper than amusing doggerel. His Beginner Books make extensive use of repeated words - sometimes using only 50 words - in a way that is far from tedious. Some of the Beginner Books are among his most popular. Readers aged five and under can pick up these books themselves and have a go. Many of us young Americans who started reading Seuss's Beginner Books as pre-schoolers could read fairly well before leaving kindergarten, whereupon most of us had to endure the retrograde slide back into the turgid Sally, Dick and Jane primers - a real bummer after Fox in Socks, let me tell you.

What I perceive as the British orientation towards text-based literacy at the expense of visual literacy might explain why Seuss doesn't sit alongside the giants of children's literature in Britain. The true genius of Seuss's books isn't so much the texts but their strong conceptual underpinning and the pathos of his inventive, emotionally charged illustrations. He reinvents the world in a Seussified way. Seuss architecture could sit comfortably alongside the work of post-rationalist giants of architecture such as Frank Gehry.

Dr Seuss has been my longest-standing hero and mentor, and perhaps the biggest influence on my own work in children's book illustration. His "concept" books are my personal favourites. Titles such as Dr Seuss's Sleep Book and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish had a strong enough visual literacy to make up for any lack of a real story.

Worthy of a mention, although unfortunately not among the reissues, is On Beyond Zebra!, one of Seuss's most exciting and controversial books. OBZ! extended the alphabet into a fantastic alternative world full of outrageous creatures with names beginning with new and exotic letters. It caused a stink among certain American librarians and teachers who felt that introducing children to letters that didn't exist was confusing and disruptive to the learning process. But OBZ! offers juniors the kind of cerebral excitement they're not likely to encounter again until such time as they break the code of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or come to understand the implications of Einstein's theory of relativity.

Once Seuss got youngsters hooked on reading, he'd introduce topics such as discrimination (Horton Hears a Who!, 1954, and The Sneetches, 1961), the commercialisation of religious holidays (How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, 1957), totalitarianism ( Yertle the Turtle, 1958) and environmentalism (The Lorax, 1971).

Outside Seuss's juvenile work, there's loads more interesting Seussenalia to discover. Long before he joined up with Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones to animate The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1971), Seuss and Jones worked together in 1943 for the information and education division of the US army, producing black-and-white training cartoons starring the hapless Private Snafu. Also, there's Seuss's 1952 live action film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T. This nightmarish fable of a tyrannical piano teacher who imprisons 500 piano-practising boys is almost too weird and frightening for very young kids.

A BBC2 profile of Dr Seuss is in the pipeline as part of a six-part television series on children's writers, scheduled for screening in early 1998. Meanwhile, the "real, live" Cat in the Hat will be making appearances up and down the country in a national tour of book shops and children's events. He's even starring in a Spielberg movie due for release in 1999. Who knows, he might be found eating green eggs and ham at the cafe in the proposed Centre for the Children's Book, which is scheduled to open on Tyneside in 2001.

It's hard to believe that a man whose first picture book was turned down in 1937 by no fewer than 28 publishers went on to become such a phenomenon, boasting 42 books published by Random House in the US and Collins in Britain. I applaud the relaunching of what is perhaps Collins's most important children's back-list asset (in answer to the warming-over of Enid Blyton now being foisted on yet another generation of innocent children). Cat's-hats off to those who have given the doctor new life.

Ted Dewan is an American-born creator of children's books. His latest book, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is published by Doubleday (Pounds 9.99), with accompanying audio tape (Pounds 3.99)

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